Chapter 61

Friday soon kicked into gear. The deli was swamped with hungry customers and the Friday shopping rush started early, filling the store with nearly more customers than the employees could handle. Even Matt helped nearly all of the time, fielding questions somewhat enigmatically but, for the most part, sending customers on their way.

It wasn’t until around 15:40, right around the time that the deli crowd was thinning a bit, that things took a turn.

Michelle-Bear, To’mas, and Zap were busy at the deli counter, filling orders and making sandwiches with polished grace.

With no warning whatsoever, a scream pierced the air. All three employees froze in place, as did the customers they were serving.

A rough voice echoed from the front of the store. “I will see all of the employees of this store at the front!”

A pause.

“If I do not, I will begin killing your customers.”

The stranger got his wish; within seconds every employee was at the front of the store and pointing a weapon at him. Some of the bystanders, too, had their weapons out and were pointing them all at the stranger; the others didn’t seem to want to make themselves into targets.

Steve and Zap immediately recognized the man in the wide-brimmed hat. He was even more imposing than he had seemed when he was outside the store; the man could not have been shorter than Michelle-Bear and was probably even more muscular under his heavy coat. One of his gloved hands was holding aloft a massive sword with seemingly very little effort. The naked sword was almost as fearsome as the figure himself—it was half a meter wide, a luminous gold color, and inscribed with strange symbols along its entire length. His head was tilted back somewhat, and everyone could see that the man was wearing a dark-colored mask with tinted lenses over his eyes and a set of vertical slits where his mouth would be. The figure was also holding a terrified-looking businessman aloft by the shirt with his free hand.

“If anyone takes action against me, they will face the consequences,” the figure said. “I have a simple request, and once it is fulfilled I will depart.”

“To’mas…?” Alan murmured under his breath.

“All of the aura readers on this thing measure this guy as off the charts,” To’mas’s voice muttered in Alan’s ear. “I seriously doubt the gun would even faze him.”

“Okay,” Alan said aloud, “state your demands, terrorist.”

“I am no terrorist,” the man said. “I am Ro Z’kerr, brother of Lath Z’kerr and heir to the fourth royal laboratory of Mu.”

The bystanders murmured among themselves, mostly about how crazy the man had to be.

“Mu doesn’t exist,” Steve said derisively, keeping the stranger’s head in her sights.

“The stupidity of your historians is immaterial,” Z’kerr rasped. “I am Ro Z’kerr and I demand that the Eternal face me.”

“We have no knowledge of an Eternal,” Alan said. “We are all mortals.”

Z’kerr pointed his sword straight at Alan, who raised his shotgun in response. “You lie!” he shouted. “My divinations have been exhaustive and conclusive! The Eternal is here and I demand restitution for what he has done!”

“What would that be?” Zap asked, looking down his wandpoint at Z’kerr.

“The Eternal destroyed the minds of my brother and his fellow scientists!” Z’kerr said in a hoarse roar.

“Or,” Loren said, stepping out from the crowd, “this Fourth Royal Laboratory was looking into the unknowable, and staring directly into it was too much for their simple minds to withstand.”

Ro Z’kerr’s reaction was instant; he tossed the businessman into the crowd, knocking down several nearby onlookers. He strode across the floor in two impossible paces and grabbed Loren by the apron, hoisting him aloft as he had done with the businessman.

“You know nothing of the Royal Scientists of Mu,” he hissed at Loren. “And for your insolence, you die.”

He drove the blade through Loren’s midsection, running it straight through and out his back. The wound sprayed blood all over Zap, who shrank away from the gore. Loren’s body convulsed in Z’kerr’s hand. Zap cringed away and several members of the crowd shrieked.

“You certainly are Muan, aren’t you?” Loren asked from behind Z’kerr. His shirt and apron were undamaged, and he stood casually with his hands in his pockets.

Z’kerr looked back at Loren, then up at the empty space where his hand now held nothing.

“Something troubles you, so you choose to hit it with your livemetal until it goes away,” Loren said, tilting his head a bit. The empty look in the eyes of their coworker unsettled the employees who caught them.

“It is because you think it will work,” Loren continued, then spoke in a formal tone as though quoting. “Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure.”

Loren clasped his hands behind his back. “This is not such a circumstance.”

Z’kerr slowly lowered his hand and his blade. “You,” he said.

“You know, Ro, I have a name now,” Loren said. “Lorem Ipsum.”

Z’kerr lunged forward and lashed out in a deadly arc with his sword. It passed through empty air.

“Most of your people chose to learn a lesson from the fate of Laboratory Four,” Loren asked, standing calmly on the ceiling. “Did you just not get it? Were you too busy praying to Maal to give you long life?”

Z’kerr threw his sword at Loren. It traced an unnaturally straight line up to the employee, who merely held up his hand. The sword hit its mark, but seemed for some reason to be disproportionately small; it appeared that only a small knife had pierced Loren’s hand. Looking directly at the sword, it seemed to be the correct size, but so, somehow, did the hand. Many onlookers looked away, rubbing their aching temples.

Ro Z’kerr growled and beckoned to the sword, which shot out of Loren’s hand and returned to him.

Loren wiped his hand on his apron unnecessarily; there was no blood. Also, he was now on the floor in front of Z’kerr, not on the ceiling. He did not seem to have actually moved or disappeared. More bystanders clutched their heads.

“I am unwilling to fight here any longer,” Loren said. “I am already damaging the weaker minds among the onlookers. I was happy to be a placeholder here and I care for these people. Together we will leave this place and finish this feud once and for all. If you don’t wish to begin your search anew, I strongly suggest that you leave them alone and follow me.”

Z’kerr did not seem pleased, but did not make any overt physical action; it seemed that he acknowledged that Loren could escape if he so chose with little effort.

Loren turned back to the other employees—all of whom had long since lowered their weapons in shock—and smiled.

“Sorry, Alan,” he said. “I don’t really have the flexibility to give my two weeks.”

“Uh,” Alan said, “that’s—that’s okay.”

Loren waved to everyone else. “I’m afraid that none of you are ever going to see Loren Waites again,” he said. “It’s been real. I’ll miss you.”

The employees and the crowd were all silent as Loren stripped off his apron and folded it neatly.

Finally, Steve blurted: “We’ll miss you too, Loren. Um, Lorem.”

Loren laughed. “Please, still Loren. If only for a little longer.”

Alan tapped his nametag twice and held his hand out, palm up: the Service Worker’s Salute. One by one, the other employees followed suit, tapping their badges and holding out their hands. Loren returned the salute, and then did something extraordinary: he took himself off.

Quite a few members of the crowd cried out in pain as Lorem Ipsum ‘doffed’ Loren, who dissolved into a mass of archaic-looking code text. Lorem, whose features seemed to elude the senses, highlighted the text with his hand and made a flicking motion, and the Loren-code vanished. Matt raised his camera and took a picture.

Lorem Ipsum took one last glance at the employees of the 15th and Neimuth Securemarket™, then turned to his opponent. Ro Z’kerr tensed and readied his weapon, but Lorem had no intention of fighting. A noise split the air like someone violently running all of their fingers across the modulation patch on a mixer, and then the two enemies were gone.

Everyone gaped. Zap stuck a finger in his ear and twisted it around. To’mas’s voice sounded over the store’s PA system.

“Attention shoppers. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please return to your Securemarket™ shopping experience. Remember, it’s Data Deal Friday! Please check our ethsite for Data Deals valid today only!”

After a few moments, the crowd’s New Washingtonian instincts took over. They murmured amongst themselves in bemusement and wonder as they dispersed outside or into the aisles. The employees all gathered at the front of the store, forming a half-circle around Loren’s discarded apron. Alan leaned down and picked it up.

“This is going to be a hard one to file,” he said, then started. He looked at his shell, which informed him that he had an incoming call. “Scuze me.” He moved away from the group. “Hey, Paru,” he said as he walked away.

“That was really something else. I think that today couldn’t possibly get any weirder,” Click said.

Everyone stared at him.

“What?” Click asked.

“You don’t say that,” Steve said.

“Why not?” Click said.

Alan interrupted before Steve could reply. “Paru called,” he said urgently. “Mayfield’s sent an occupation force into this neighborhood. We’ve got a war on our hands!”